Erotic Romance, Not Just Erotica and Romance

by Guest Blogger on May 27, 2010 · 21 comments

in About, Erotica, Guest Blogger, S-U

guestblog

by Cecilia Tan, guest blogger

Our tale begins in 1970, which is the year some point to as the beginning of the modern romance genre, with the arrival of the manuscript The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss on the desk of editor Nancy Coffey at Avon. The book would be a huge bestseller, kicking off a new era of romance publishing, and Woodiwiss was the first of the “Avon Ladies.” In that year, the average age at which American women married was 20.6 years old.

But 1987 that average was up to 23.3 years old, and according to the US Census Bureau, by 2003 it was 25.1 years, where it remains today.

Meanwhile, the percentage of female teenagers becoming sexually active rose from 30% to 40% between 1982 and 1988, and now, 20 years later, the rate of high school students who have had intercourse is close to 50%. (They don’t count it as “sex” unless you have intercourse, you know.) In short, that means a lot of young American women, who used to go into their marriages with no sexual experience, now tend to have a significant amount of time as sexually active people before they marry–most as much as a decade.

Not only that, but as the generations have progressed from the swingin’ seventies to today, the kinds of sex that women are having has proliferated. The likelihood that they have experience with spanking, bondage, multiple partners, bisexuality, and other things that would have once been considered outre is now quite high as well, with 48% of people currently in their 20s reporting they have at least “experimented” with these activities.

bondage

Is it any wonder, then, that romance novels have changed, too?

This doesn’t mean that every romance reader wants in her life–or in her fiction–non-stop sex, kinky sex, or partner swapping. But the “bodice rippers” that were a staple of past generations are now often seen as either laughable or even anti-woman by modern readers, and the breathless euphemisms that used to be standard in the genre come off as quaint or unintentionally funny. The back cover copy on Woodiwiss’s “Flame…” speaks of “…the Carolina plantation where Brandon finally probes the depths of Heather’s full womanhood!”

We might make fun of the old style of marketing, but there is no denying that whatever language is used, romances have always been about passion as well as love. And just as fewer and fewer women would find a chaste kiss to be satisfying after a romantic dinner out, and now they want the same desires reflected in their favorite fiction.

But what distinguishes erotic romance from “erotica”(a broad term in itself)? Is erotic romance just a hybrid between romance and erotic fiction? In actuality, it’s the strength of the romance genre that allows so much flexibility in what we can call “romance” these days. The two unchanging aspects are the focus on love and the core relationship, and the happy/emotionally satisfying ending. That leaves a lot of room to have different historical settings, mystery subplots, fantastical aspects. As Beatrice Small wrote in a 2007 essay on the history of the genre, “[In the 1970s] romance [grew into] a billion dollar baby for publishing. It was a two-headed baby to begin with: Historicals and Category. But then as women’s palates grew more sophisticated, baby grew more heads. Historical and Category were joined by Western, Thriller, Paranormal, Glitz, Chick-Lit, Christian, Contemporary, and OHMYSTARS! Erotic, just to name a few. And the Historical sub-genre had sub-sub-genres. Regency. Georgian. Medieval. [and so on.]”

In other words, romance is a great-looking model on which you can put any kind of outfit, whether a medieval ball gown or six-inch spike heels and a leather corset.

For me, it isn’t the amount of sex in a book, nor how graphic it is, that makes a book “erotica” and not romance. I am one of those women for whom love and sex go hand in hand in my real life. I wouldn’t dream of spending my life with someone if I didn’t know we were compatible in bed. In a love story, especially a contemporary one, I feel like I need to see some erotic interaction between the characters in order to believe that their love is real and can work. In historicals I find Unresolved Sexual Tension more believable than in stories set in the modern day, but what I am still seeking is the ultimate release of that tension. I love writers who can wind the ratchet tighter and tighter, but just like someone who is great at teasing in bed, I want them to eventually deliver me that mind-shattering release.

legs

More sex scenes do not necessarily make a “hotter” book, the way more salt and pepper doesn’t automatically make a meal taste better. What is most arousing is when the sex is convincing, when it makes sense with the characters and when it follows a logical progression through their emotional lives.

There are plenty of books of erotica out there. I know, because I’ve written them. Many of them are collections of short stories, because erotica can so often be about the fling, the one-night stand, the exploration of a character’s sexual growth, but doesn’t necessarily have to be about love. Short stories are flings, but novels are relationships. And just as I found I need to see some sexual interaction between characters for me to believe they are falling in love, I also have to see them falling in love in order to believe that they are going to keep having sex for the space of an entire novel! If they aren’t, if the plot is not a love story but just an vehicle to get us from one sex scene to another, inventive and arousing as the scenes may be, I’d classify a book as erotica, and not erotic romance.

When I sat down to write my book MIND GAMES, which I’d classify as an erotic paranormal suspense romance, I had already come up with the characters many years before. I’d originally envisioned Wren and Derek as an established couple, and I was trying to write them in a kind of detective/spy scenario where their partnership and relationship were already long since established. But that idea never really firmed up. I kept asking myself how they had come to be a couple, and how did they find out that sex enhanced her psychic abilities? Ultimately I realized I couldn’t write what happens in their future until I wrote their love story and answered those questions.

It was an incredible experience writing them falling in love. After over a decade of writing and publishing dozens of erotic short stories, in places like Ms. Magazine, Best American Erotica, and Nerve, having the room to follow the characters from their initial meeting and spark of attraction, right through to their eventual emotional break-throughs, felt like a decadent luxury to me. I really was able to focus on the emotions, not just on Wren’s attraction and feelings of arousal, but also her conflicted feelings, her fears, her past wounds, and her determination to make this time different from the failed relationships of the past.

Now that I think about it, I did the exact same thing in my second romance novel, THE HOT STREAK. If anything, THE HOT STREAK concentrates even more on the relationship because there is no mystery sub-plot. All the “action” revolves around our heroine falling in love with a baseball player and learning to negotiate the ups and downs of being a “major league girlfriend.” It’s a much more light-hearted book than MIND GAMES, but again there’s that theme of her not yet having found Mr. Right, and then all the doors it opens in her heart and her life when she finally meets him.

Ultimately, this is why erotic romance is still romance, because although we want him in bed, we still want Mr. Right. It’s just romance created to satisfy the women like me who aren’t satisfied by a story that doesn’t meet their own sexual reality, and those are the women I set out to please, too. And I’m sure as the needs and lives of women continue to change in the 21st century, the heroines and stories we find in romances will change to meet them.

Cecilia Tan is the author of the erotic romances MIND GAMES, THE HOT STREAK, and the forthcoming MAGIC UNIVERSITY series, as well as numerous books of erotica and baseball nonfiction. Read sample chapters more at http://www.ceciliatan.com/.

References:
“More Girls Are Sexually Active, Study Finds,” by Felicity Barrington, New York Times, November 10, 1990 (http://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/10/us/more-girls-are-sexually-active-study-finds.html)

“Facts on American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health,” Alan Guttmacher Institute, September 2006 (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_ATSRH.html)

“Most Americans Have Had Premarital Sex,” By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY, December 19, 2006, (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-12-19-premarital-sex_x.htm)

America transformed: sixty years of revolutionary change, 1941-2001, by Richard M. Abrams, Cambridge University Press, 2001

“A Brief History of the Romance Genre,” by Beatrice Small, Shorelines newsletter, August 19, 2007 (http://www.authorscene.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=60)

Photo Credits: Wiros, Oneras [what about peace?]

Leave a Comment

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Susan May 27, 2009 at 5:45 AM

Hi Ms. Tan,
I own alot of paranormal romance with vampires or shapeshifters -but characters with psychic abilities sounds interesting .The editorial review of Mind Games I found online was really good. I’ll be picking up your book next time I visit Barnes & Noble.
(I wonder if Wren & Derek have a HEA)

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2 Lexi Ryan May 27, 2009 at 5:52 AM

Thanks for the post, Cecilia! Having, myself, come from romance and evolved into writing hotter and hotter stories, I find your journey from erotica to erotic romance fascinating! And don’t you think the romance makes the love scenes even hotter? As a writer, tension is easier to wind tighter when emotions are involved…and when the characters finally come together, there’s so much more at stake! So glad you found your way to ER.
Thanks again!
~Lexi

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3 Isabel Roman May 27, 2009 at 9:15 AM

“If they aren’t, if the plot is not a love story but just an vehicle to get us from one sex scene to another, inventive and arousing as the scenes may be, I’d classify a book as erotica, and not erotic romance.”

I completely agree, there is definitely a difference. I admit to prefering erotic romance, it’s the arc of the characters together that draws me in. And having just about finished Mind Games, I can say you have a way with drawing the reader into the spicy romance of it all.

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4 Ryan Field May 27, 2009 at 11:02 AM

I really liked this. I’m actually going to save it and read it again later.

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5 EM Lynley May 27, 2009 at 11:44 AM

Great post, Cecilia.
I love your data and references to support how this genre has evolved.

I think that one of the bigger issues is still how books are labeled and marketed, with some blurring of the lines between erotica and ER. Publishers need to find a better way to classify the works so that readers get just what they are looking for.

I never thought much about this until I tried to get my work published. I didn’t know quite what to call it, but it’s always had a high sexual content but exclusively in the context of a relationship between the characters. A lot of sex doesn’t make it erotica, but just because it has explicit sex doesn’t mean it’s not a romance first and foremost.

Once publishers figure out a way to classify books better I think this genre will get more notice, respect and definitely more readers!

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6 Inara/Dana May 27, 2009 at 1:11 PM

Cecilia, an excellent, articulate and interesting look at the evolution of romance. I remember those Avon Ladies – I think Flame and the Flower was one of the first romances I read that wasn’t a Harlequin or Barbara Cartland. Even back in the day we (my sister, mom and me) used to laugh at the hyperbole and purple prose.

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7 C. Margery Kempe May 27, 2009 at 1:13 PM

Wonderfully clear explanation of the differences. Like so many things that seem straight forward, the line between erotica and erotic romance seems to be unclear to a lot of people.

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8 Keta Diablo May 27, 2009 at 1:25 PM

“But what distinguishes erotic romance from “erotica”(a broad term in itself)?”

Great article, Cecilia. Love the “flexibility” you point out.

Keta

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9 Lisa Lane May 27, 2009 at 1:38 PM

Fantastic article, Celia! As an erotica and erotic romance writer, I really appreciate what you have done, here. It is important that people understand there is not just one literary tradition in “romance,” and that its roots and evolution are just as important as current mainstream ideals and expectations. Kudos!

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10 Cecilia Tan May 27, 2009 at 2:21 PM

Thanks all for commenting! EM has a great point here: “I think that one of the bigger issues is still how books are labeled and marketed, with some blurring of the lines between erotica and ER. Publishers need to find a better way to classify the works so that readers get just what they are looking for”

I think right now a lot of the “mainstream” publishers are looking at romance and saying, oooh, look, the sales of romance are up, even in the recession, therefore, let’s slap the romance label on more things! So you’re getting a lot of urban fantasy labeled as romance, for example, as well as erotica, but the publishers are sort of failing to recognize what it is that a lot of readers want out of a romance.

Lori Devoti has a great column on this right now at Romancing the Blog about the difference between paranormal romance and Urban Fantasy: http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/2009/05/27/are-we-speaking-the-same-language/

And there was just a big piece in Publishers Weekly on the same subject: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6660125.html

Now I’m a bit worried because my next book, Magic University, is definitely supposed to be a paranormal romance, but because it’s a four book series, the first book doesn’t wrap up with HEA… will people really this and be OK with it, or will I have romance readers throwing it across the room? *ducks*

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11 Rachel Kenley May 27, 2009 at 2:43 PM

Thanks for this blog post, Cecilia. I appreciate all your distinctions, clarifications and information. I especially like the quote:

More sex scenes do not necessarily make a “hotter” book, the way more salt and pepper doesn’t automatically make a meal taste better. What is most arousing is when the sex is convincing, when it makes sense with the characters and when it follows a logical progression through their emotional lives.

A very important point.

I’ll be sending people here!

-Rachel

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12 Lisa Lane May 27, 2009 at 4:27 PM

“Now I’m a bit worried because my next book, Magic University, is definitely supposed to be a paranormal romance, but because it’s a four book series, the first book doesn’t wrap up with HEA… will people really this and be OK with it, or will I have romance readers throwing it across the room? *ducks*”

That is the biggest issue with BLOOD AND COFFEE, the first book in my vampire series, THE DARKNESS AND THE NIGHT. The story has a “happy for now” ending, but I know it still ticked off a lot of readers. The ending to the second in the series is a little happier, but also bittersweet … and I have to wonder how many actual romance readers will make it to the final, VERY happy ending that comes at the conclusion of the third book.

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13 katiebabs May 27, 2009 at 6:38 PM

I think it is great how far erotic romance has come. There are so many authors writing for this genre. I guess me first erotic romance I ever read was by Beatrice Small.

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14 Cecilia Tan May 27, 2009 at 7:12 PM

@Lisa — hopefully people will hang in there! I figure if the book is clearly labeled book one of a series, I don’t feel I’m duping the reader somehow on what’s in it.

@katiebabs — ooh, really? I admit I haven’t read any Bertrice Small yet, but after learning so much about what she’s done over the past forty years writing romances I’m really intrigued! She seems like such a smart lady!

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15 katiebabs May 28, 2009 at 5:31 AM

Cecilia: To a young 14 year old girl who was just starting to read romance, Small opened a whole new world for me. Her early books are so addicting.

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16 Cecilia Tan May 28, 2009 at 9:32 AM

According to her website, some of Bertrice Small’s older books are being republished this year, too! And she’s still writing, it looks like. Her website is fun; http://www.bertricesmall.net/coming_attractions.shtml

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17 sheilam May 28, 2010 at 2:53 PM

I totally agree Kathleen Woodiwiss started the genre. If you go back and read Flame and the Flower now you wonder what all the fuss was about back then. There is so little sex a 12 year old could read it, but at the time we were all sweating and waiting for Brandon to finally make his move. Those were much simpler days.

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18 Maheen Ali October 4, 2013 at 5:20 PM

Great post, Cecilia.
I love your data and references to support how this genre has evolved.

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19 Shauna Aura Knight December 28, 2013 at 4:35 AM

Great post. It’s been interesting for me to read the history of various types of publishing, including romance. Thanks for bringing some additional insight into the genre for me.

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20 Deb Bailey May 10, 2014 at 6:51 PM

I enjoyed reading the backstory to the modern romance era. Last year I published my first sci-fi romance novel–also my first venture into romance. So, I had a lot of questions about what is romance, what’s erotica and how to navigate it all. This answered all my questions. But I had to chuckle at the mention of The Flame and the Flower. Years ago my older cousin gave me that to read on the down low. Something tells me it wouldn’t seem quite as racy now.

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